Pop: The art of being Arto

Mix electronic beats, jazzy funky ambient vibes and bossa nova and you've got pure Arto Lindsay.
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The Independent Culture
Arto Lindsay is so hip, it hurts. Even his postcodes, like his address book, sound hip: he rents an apartment in New York, ownsanother in Rio, and gets asked over for dinner by Laurie and Lou (Reed). The American composer, singer and guitarist, whose major British tour for the Arts Council's Contemporary Music Network culminates with concerts in London tonight and in Brighton tomorrow night, may not sell many records - but he can take comfort in the fact that the people who do buy them will probably have very tasteful homes.

His last three albums, O Corpo Sutil, Mundo Civilizado, and Noon Chill (all released here on the Rykodisc label) provide an incomparably sophisticated sound-track for modern urban living, mixing up bossa nova, electronic beats and faintly jazzy, funky, ambient atmospherics to create one of the most distinctive and elegant oeuvres around.

Lindsay's musical accomplices for the albums draw on a Who's Who of the international avant garde, and include contributions from Ryuichi Sakamoto, Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, Caetano Veloso, Bill Frisell and DJ Spooky.

In person, Lindsay is as formidably cool as his music, although his high, domed forehead and retro spectacles make him look rather less like a Thirties German rocket scientist than they tend to do in photographs. He's also very funny, in a dry, New York way.

As a record producer (which is how he earns his living) Lindsay has worked with David Byrne and the leading lights of the new wave in Brazilian song, such as Marisa Monte and Vinicius Cantuaria. He's played weird jazz with John Zorn and John Lurie, collaborated with those cool thesps The Wooster Group and even appeared briefly as an actor, in Desperately Seeking Susan.

Perhaps inevitably, Lindsay has also written music for the Frankfurt Ballet - as you do. All this, and he's never bothered to learn how to play guitar properly.

"I still can't technically play," Lindsay admits when we meet at a hotel in Maida Vale, where he's been billeted for a day of press interviews. "In fact I can't really play any instruments. I just got a chance to put a band together and had this notion that I wanted to play guitar. Then people started writing that I reminded them of all these free-jazz guitar players like Sonny Sharrock, Derek Bailey and Fred Frith, but it was only after I got started that I checked them out. Now I know about that stuff, but I didn't then."

The group in question was DNA, which Lindsay formed when he was offered a gig at Max's Kansas City in New York by the manager of Television, who had assumed that he was a musician. DNA were included on Brian Eno's influential compilation album of New York post-punk acts, and went on to create quite a stir as one of the first of the "noise" bands, but the group failed to live up to Lindsay's expectations. "I thought that the more extreme and unique the experience we could provide, the larger the acclaim would be," Lindsay says. "I quickly became disabused of that notion. We proceeded to amass quite a following in New York and in urban centres everywhere, but I realised that in order to keep going we'd have to convert people all over the country, and I wasn't that interested."

Later projects included the groups The Golden Palaminos and The Ambitious Lovers, by which time Lindsay had already begun to let his interests in Brazilian music seep through the confrontational noise. This South American connection was no dilettante affair; Lindsay lived in Brazil from the age of three to 18 while his parents served there as missionaries, and he grew up with bossa nova and the songs of the Tropicalismo movement, led by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. When Ryuichi Sakamoto asked him to make a bossa nova album for a Japanese label, Lindsay said he would make an album about bossa nova. This became O Corpo Sutil (1996), the first part of what now counts as a kind of Brazilian trilogy.

"I'd recorded albums' worth of stuff that I threw away before I knew what to do," Lindsay says. "For the second album, we went to Bahia and recorded a lot of percussion and then tried to put together a picture of the local New York electronica scene for a re-mix (Mundo Civilizado was accompanied by Hyper Civilizado, a distressed version of the same material). For the third one, I didn't have a clear concept; I wanted to make it lusher and thicker, and include some of the re-mix stuff on the record itself."

Lindsay insists that his methods haven't really changed since his days with DNA. "To some extent I've always worked with this crude idea of contrast. In the beginning, sound and silence, on or off, was about all that I could control. In The Ambitious Lovers we used a lot of sequencers but blended them with live playing. Now, in our live show, and in the last two recordings, we've tried to give the acoustic guitar centre-stage and allow that to be heard. When you're recording, all the frequencies of the different instruments eat away at each other, and we very consciously tried to leave air around the guitar and percussion. But these back-and- forth things are kind of what I do, or at least they're a place to start."

In the taxi to Ronnie Scott's club, where his friend Vinicius Cantuaria is doing a showcase for his new album, Lindsay says he would like to come to London to produce Marisa Monte's new album at Abbey Road, but he doesn't know any musicians here. At Ronnie's, Cantuaria calls him up to the stage to duet on a beautiful ballad, and Lindsay's deadpan, Lou Reed-in-Portuguese vocals immediately put a distinctive downtown New York spin on the tropical cadences of the song. They also make it sound effortlessly hip. Just like Arto Lindsay himself, even if he still can't tell his A chord from his E.

The Arto Lindsay Band plays the Purcell Room, London SE1 (0171-960 4201), tonight; and the Sallis Benney Theatre, Brighton (01273 643010), Sat 1 May